Regardless of ranking or records, the matchup between the Arizona Wildcats and UCLA Bruins has been marked on the calendar since before the season started. The history, championships, players and coaches are only part of the mix.
Adding to it is that the Bruins and Wildcats are leading the resurgence of the Pac-12 Conference with two of the top three recruiting classes in the nation last year. The Arizona-UCLA rivalry is the best that the West Coast has to offer.
This season is no different.
The winner of this game is still the odds-on favorite to take home the conference crown (regardless of what Oregon has to say about it). With this on the line, there are several keys to Arizona's victory in Tucson.
Turnovers have been an issue for Arizona all season. On the trip to Oregon, the Wildcats continued their turnover woes, recording 14 in a loss to Oregon and 16 in a win over Oregon State. But they bounced back while playing at Arizona State University, with a combined total of nine in their victory.
To beat UCLA, the total will need to be closer to nine than 16. Giving the Bruins too many extra possessions is going to be difficult for Arizona to overcome with all the firepower UCLA brings to the table.
A positive sign for the Cats is that in the biggest games this year, against ranked Florida and San Diego State, they only had 10 and eight turnovers, respectively. I suspect in the game against UCLA there will be a similarly focused result and if so, Arizona will be in good shape.
Arizona's big three freshmen, Grant Jerrett, Brandon Ashley and Kaleb Tarczewski have played well throughout the year. Each player has contributed solid minutes and, as a unit, they are a very well-rounded troika.
But rarely this season has one had a stellar performance. The only one that quickly comes to mind is Ashley's game against Long Beach State. Tarczewski seems to consistently play well, but has only scored in double figures once. And Jerrett is yet to have a real break out game.
The road to a Wildcat's victory will be made much easier if Ashley could have another great game, Tarczewski could record his first double-double, or Jerrett could put together the killer shooting performance we all know he is capable of.
Arizona has shown it is completely capable of winning games without the stellar performances of the three freshman bigs. However, if one of them were to tear the Bruins up, a victory would be all but guaranteed.
If there has ever been a clash of styles at the point guard position, it is in this game. And it is going to be awesome.
Larry Drew II is a classic, traditional point guard. He creates offense for his teammates by penetrating and dishing, to the tune of 8.1 assists per game; that's good for third in the country.
His assist-to-turnover ratio is by far the best in the country, and higher than any rate for more than a decade. His job is to pass the ball, and he does it really, really, well. As prolific as he is as a passer, he doesn't score much, adding just 5.8 per game.
As the Pac-12 season has progressed, his scoring has only got better. In Pac-12 play, he is averaging 19.4 points per game and scored a season high of 24 in the last outing against ASU. While scoring a lot, his assist totals are mediocre and has a 1.14 assist-to-turnover ratio.
These two guys play the same position, but couldn't be more different on the offensive end. So which style wins out? It will be fun to see. But, most likely, both of these guys will do what they do best. Lyons will score and Drew II will assist. If Lyons can do his thing better than Drew does his, the Wildcats will be well on their way to a victory at McKale.
Shabazz Muhammad will be a top-ten pick in the NBA draft and is one of the best, if not the best player in the Pac-12 conference. He already has seven games in which he has scored more than 20, and has been held under 10 only once the entire season. He is UCLA's biggest weapon against big-time competition.
If there is a team with enough talent to contain him, it is Arizona. They will be able to throw both quickness and size at Muhammad. Throughout the game, he will be defended by Solomon Hill, Kevin Parrom and at some points Nick Johnson. All three are athletic and give him just enough of a change that his game might be thrown off.
If Arizona, with their grouping against Muhammad, can keep him to around 15 points, a win will be well within reach. If he goes for 25 or more, which he has done three times already this year, UCLA will be in a good spot to pull off the upset.
When Solomon Hill is aggressive, he is darn near unstoppable. With his combination of size, speed, shooting ability, ball-handing and vision (the list could go on and on), he is a difficult match up for any player in the Pac-12.
During the Pac-12 season, he has played very well, averaging 15.8 in the five conference games. But his aggressiveness wavers from game-to-game, even from minute-to-minute.
If Arizona is to be a great team (and they aren't right now), his set of skills need to be on full display. Instead of taking 9.6 shots per game in Pac-12 play, which he is now, he should be taking closer to the 14.8 that Mark Lyons is taking.
Good things happen when Hill is on the attack. The equation looks like this: more shot attempts = make more shots = defenders playing closer = more able to beat defender off the dribble = open teammate or more free throw attempts. That might not be the best math I've ever done, but it adds up well.
During a season where Hill is shooting 46.5 percent from the field, 43.5 percent from three, and close to 80 percent from the free throw-line, he needs to be putting the ball up as much as any player on the team. If he takes close to 15 attempts, the Wildcats will walk away with a win.